The most frightening film of 2020 is not a horror flick. It’s a film about our electoral process. Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman’s stunning and eye-opening documentary examines how gerrymandering (the act of manipulating boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one political party) is a very real and very present danger to our American democracy. This could be the most important film of 2020.
This sobering film follows the trail of Republican senators who, in 2010, used gerrymandering to reshape their own districts in a bid to marginalize Democratic voters, assuring their votes would not allow them a victory, even if they won the popular vote.
The film serves as both warning and lesson. We are taken step-by-step through the process of gerrymandering through focused determination. The audience is educated on its origins (1812), how it got its name (after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry combining his name with the last half of “salamander,” as that is how his district looked on a map!), why it was designed (to remove the voice of the lower-class), and how the Republican party has weaponized it to manipulate the election process. The most severe fatality is how it affects communities of color and renders said communities’ votes all but non-existent.
As a process, gerrymandering is driven by classism and racism. American electoral districts are drawn on a map. Populations loyal to one political party are reformed into concentrated voting blocks. This allows a consistently partisan result when the votes are counted.
Districts are mandated to be redrawn only once a decade. After the racist right-wing reaction to having Barak Obama as president for eight years, Republicans put into motion a plan using gerrymandering to insure this would never happen again. Funded by the Koch brothers, the Right used harsh attack ads and intimidation to defeat the Democrats in the major state elections.
We examine the practice’s evils through two separate, yet morally-connected, issues. One in Wisconsin and the other in Michigan. The film opens with the Flint, Michigan water crisis and links how it has been ignored and covered-up directly to gerrymandering. We watch in absolute terror as we learn how the Republican officials decided (thanks to their gerrymandering of their districts) they were no longer accountable to the voters in other districts (those who didn’t vote for them and the lower-income areas), ergo appointing city managers from the private sector to deal with the water crisis. This caused the crisis to reach dangerous highs, as these city managers began to funnel the water supply from the dirty Flint River.
The film introduces Chris Janowski, a Republican strategist who created the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, and a man who is more than proud to boast about his use of the gerrymandering process. His matter-of-fact tone and uncovered emails to a fellow governor are chilling and speak to the illegality of it all. Were this a fiction film, Janowski would be its main villain.
In Wisconsin, we follow an anti-gerrymandering case to the Supreme Court, led by a husband and wife legal team who argue that it is an outdated and illegal process. Sadly, the case is stalled as Justice Anthony Kennedy wasn’t sold on whether this was a case for the Federal courts rather than the State. Unfortunately, the case stayed in limbo during the time Kennedy abruptly retired and was eventually replaced by Brett Kavanaugh.
The true center of the film involves Katie Fahey, founder of “Voters Not Politicians,” a non-partisan grassroots organization whose mission is to keep the power in the hands of the people. You know, like that old constitution tells us to do. Remember that?
We learn about her organization’s history and watch Fahey on her tireless quest to cease partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. Fahey’s story is even more fascinating as she has no political background of any kind, yet manages to get her organization off the ground, leading it to become a major voice in Michigan’s voting rights battle. It is Fahey’s steadfast determination that stands as a testament to the power of our democracy.
“Slay the Dragon” is a film full of passion that addresses a major threat to our democratic system. These are troubled times in America. The righteousness of the filmmakers’ quest to expose the truth behind the unlawful practices of gerrymandering is just. Durrance and Goodman’s film is as frightening as it is uplifting. Theirs is a gut-punch documentary that illuminates a grave danger that has long been in the shadows.
The fight against gerrymandering has never been more urgent. “Slay the Dragon” is the bugler leading the charge and we must all join the fight, or the song of democracy shall become “Taps.”
This film was slated for an April 3rd, 2020 release.